- Johnson rebuked by Downing Street after criticizing Saudi Arabia
- Saudi Arabia and Iran were "puppeteering and playing proxy wars", he said
- Foreign Secretary's remarks create stir in wake of UK Prime Minister's visit to region
London (CNN)UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was rebuked Thursday over comments that criticized ally Saudi Arabia as "puppeteering and playing proxy wars."
A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said Johnson did not reflect the government's position on Saudi Arabia when he made his remarks a a week ago during a conference in Rome.
Speaking during a panel discussion, Johnson blamed a lack of strong leadership for division in the region, saying, "You've got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in, and puppeteering and playing proxy wars, and it's a tragedy to watch it."
The comments, first reported by Britain's Guardian newspaper, ran counter to Britain's longstanding support for Saudi Arabia, a key ally in the Middle East.
They were particularly sensitive since they emerged in the wake of a visit by May to the region.
"Those are the Foreign Secretary's views. They are not the government's position on Saudi and its role in the region," Prime Minister Theresa May's spokeswoman said during a regular media briefing Thursday.
"The Foreign Secretary will be in the region this weekend. He will be in Saudi Arabia on Sunday and will have the opportunity to set out the way the UK sees its relationship with Saudi and the work we want to do with them and other partners to bring an end to the appalling conflict in Yemen," the spokeswoman added.
Asked if Johnson was expected to apologize to Saudi leaders on Sunday, May's spokeswoman said: "He will have meetings with senior representatives sin Saudi Arabia and he will have the opportunity to set out the government's position."
Johnson, who was appointed foreign secretary by May in July, is known for his outspoken ways and sometimes less than diplomatic use of language.
May's spokeswoman declined to confirm whether the pair had talked since Johnson's comments about Saudi Arabia became public. "The Prime Minister has full confidence in the Foreign Secretary," she added.
Johnson: Politicians 'twisting and abusing religion'
Speaking at the Mediterranean Dialogues in Rome on December 1, Johnson said leaders in the Middle East were not willing to reach out beyond their own Sunni, Shia or other religious group to "bring people together and to develop a national story again."
He also suggested they were using religion for political ends.
"There are politicians who are twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives," he said. "That's one of the biggest political problems in the whole region.